Hurt Homestays of Sikkim: Homestay Association of Sikkim acting in remediation
According to the latest data from the Sikkim Government, in the last decade, the tourism sector in Sikkim has seen a growth rate of 10-12 %. The Gross State Domestic Product of Tourism Sector in 2016-17 has been valued at Rs 1,44,735 lakhs with a total contribution of the tourism sector to GSDPbeing 7.68% (DESME State Income Unit).
Based on the figures of tourist accommodation available and the numbers of service providers, direct employment generated by this sector can be roughly estimated to be around 12,000 to 15,000 jobs at present. At the same time, the Human Development Report also notes that the industry has 61% of direct workers employed from outside the State (Sikkim Tourism Policy, Government of Sikkim).
With the tourism industry being the first line that took the fall, certain issues have crept up, similar to the unprecedented pandemic that crept up and hit the economy. Tourism in Sikkim has gradually come about as a new profession due to the state’s vast natural potential.
Village tourism, homestays, cultural tourism, trekking tourism, ecotourism, wellness tourism, flori–tourism and adventure tourism have been the sections that have had a substantial growth seen in Sikkim.
The state government of Sikkim on April laid out clear instructions on closing off the state’s borders for tourists till October 2020 in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic. This decision came in a farsighted view of the pandemic and how people from outside the borders would bring it in if the tourism industry of Sikkim kept operating.
State Governor Ganga Prasad had said that the decision to keep the borders shut came looking at the welfare of the 7-lakh population of Sikkim. It has been 2 months past that decision and the ramifications faced by the tourism industry has been dire. Hotels, Taxis, Tourist Vehicles, Liquor Industries etc., have been seen to be the most affected by them. Homestays in Sikkim have faced the same hurt, as they are mostly dependent on tourism.
“We (homestays) are the hardest hit right now in this (pandemic) situation,” says Ren Gyatso Lepcha, proprietor of Mayal Lyang homestays in North Sikkim.
“A decade ago, homestays were taken as an alternative source of income but in recent years there has been a shift where people have taken it as the primary source, for me and my family of 8, it is the only source of income and it is getting harder and harder each passing day,” Ren adds.
As a primary source of income, which is dependent on the tourists, homestays are now facing dire circumstances. There are many homestays scattered all around Sikkim who have made the trade their primary source. With a quandary on how to revive the failing sector right now the people who are in homestay businesses have now started looking at the government for help.
“Economically it is a big problem for us because homestays have picked up in Sikkim and we hope that the government is seriously thinking of us as well,” Ren says.
Further speaking his mind on remediation he says, “There’s already inter-district movements so there can be a model where government offices, institutions etc., can send people on excursions, trips, etc., and help the homestays in that way.”
“There is also a lot of tension and mental issues building throughout the state and people going out and coming to our homestays can also be a great way for Sikkimese to explore the places within their state and also get away from everything else while helping our ailing business,” he adds.
There’s also the issue of homestay businesses not being able to opt for soft loans as that can also come back to trouble the owners’ assets as the repayment can be another issue all in all, as informed by the homestay owner. It is unto the government to see for policies that can help them get soft loans with easy repayment methods on the front. The products that range from agro-based to handicrafts that come from some of these homestays have also seen to get affected in the broader spectrum.
“We have a lot of us now, and there is an association working for this same reason to help the hurting sector called HAS (Homestays Association of Sikkim),” Ren informs.
Speaking to the General Secretary of HAS and one of the Founders/Directors of Our Guest Diaries, an offbeat tours and travels company based out of Sikkim which aggregates unique farm-stays, homestays, resorts and retreats in Sikkim & NorthEast India, Pintso Gyatso, it was uncovered that the general problem was that initially the homestays were supposed to generate a supplementary income but the sector itself went on to be dependent on tourism, which caused the majority of the members of HAS and the other homestay owners to make it as a primary source of income.
“The sector is hit similarly as the hotel businesses but since these areas are dependent on tourism. In areas like Lachen, Lachung, Dzongu etc., in the north, as compared to other districts, the areas have been very badly affected and the running is almost non-existent,” Gyatso says.
“Unlike hotels, homestays can’t opt for small loans either, because the business model of the homestays differ a lot, and in the future, the repayment can cause a lot of other problems,” Gyatso adds.
As an association, HAS has been facing problems on the loan front as well because the homestays, as informed by the G.Secretary, cannot repay the loans. Hotels have more savings for worst-case scenarios but the homestays don’t have those kinds of funds in the bank. Homestays mostly operate in a pre-season cycle and the earnings are substantially low that help mostly in sustenance and the savings, as per the HAS is aeons behind other sectors.
“In HAS the membership is quite large at the moment from all four districts, and internally what we are working on is creating a marketplace for the products that homestays produce,” Gyatso says.
“We are looking at an online marketplace and are currently working on it, besides, we are also working on an offline retail place in areas more feasible to the public.”
“There are issues of quality for the customers, there is an innate issue that not all homestays produce products for the market. The products can be from gifts to food products to handicrafts and souvenirs,” he adds.
Gyatso informs that to make this possible the association needs the support of the government because the homestays are scattered throughout the state, and to get those products back to city centres and main markets, there’s a need of capital for logistics to make it happen.
“We are formulating an action plan, we are identifying all the beneficiaries and participants in the homestays in all the districts and what are the items they can produce. There is an offline market in Gangtok but we are working on the online market,” says Gyatso.
Further, speaking about the initiative of the online market, he adds “Let’s Local, the online market place is the initiative started by Our Guest for this same reason but since there is a lot of capital involved we cannot be limited to just homestay products with this. There is software and technology cost that is very high and we’re creating this market place with other local products that can help share the burden of making it possible.”
He adds, “The Tourism Secretary is also promoting Agri for homestays and we advocate that as well. The convergence of agriculture and homestays, for which some funds are coming as well from which homestay owners can apply for some soft loans and it also encouraged to increase their farm holdings. So that they can also get back into agriculture that can help supplement the income.”
He concludes, “We are taking agricultural influence to the homestays seriously so that in the future the income for homestays shouldn’t just come from housing tourists but also agriculture and agricultural products, so we are looking forward to the department of agriculture’s initiative to include agriculture in homestay model.”